When I’m filming, I never say “action” because action means end reality, begin filming and “cut” means, cut acting and welcome back to reality. For me, it’s the opposite. I don’t want reality to end.—Interview with Ramin Bahrani on Gothamist .com
You could turn Man Push Cart off after the first ten minutes and have a good idea of what Ramin Bahrani is trying to accomplish with his 2005 character study. But that would be a shame because the true heart of the film is in the details that accumulate like softly falling rain throughout its 87 minutes. By the end of this quietly mesmerizing meditation on hope and disillusionment, you’re left soaked—and impressed by how much Iranian-born Bahrani can do with so little.
Director of a few shorts (two of which are included as unremarkable extras with this DVD) and one full-length (Strangers, a road-trip movie set in southern Iran), Bahrani says he felt drawn to the subject of an immigrant working at one of New York’s ubiquitous coffee carts after the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan. In an interview with New York magazine about the genesis of the project, Bahrani says, “When Bush began to bomb Afghanistan, I realized that all the Afghans I’d ever known were pushcart vendors in New York City. Then I began to think of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, and pushing these carts seemed like a modern-day version.”
The first moments of the film perfectly convey the Sisyphean task facing Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani pushcart vendor, as he rises each morning in the dark to stock his cart before pushing (and pulling) it to his assigned corner. He leases both the truck and the spot and is years away from paying either of them off. In near silence, we watch Ahmad wake up, take the train from Queens into Manhattan, stock his cart with baked goods and coffee, and then begin the arduous journey to his corner. He drags the heavy cart along the street, nearly being hit on countless occasions by buses, trucks, and taxis. Several times throughout the course of the film, the cart gets away from him and he has to set his own insignificant body weight against the behemoth of metal gathering speed. It’s exhausting just watching it. And Bahrani returns to these images of Ahmad and his cart again and again throughout the film.
Bahrani met Ahmad Razvi, nearly 10 years ago while Razvi was working as a pushcart vendor in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although Man Push Cart was his first acting role, he’s a natural for the part, which requires a restraint and taciturnity that occasionally give way to a misplaced, heartrending optimism. In the film, Ahmad struggles constantly against insurmountable odds. After his wife died (a year before the film begins), his in-laws took custody of his young son because Ahmad couldn’t raise him while working all day. Now, the boy barely interacts with his father and the in-laws clearly blame Ahmad for his wife’s death.
Once a popular singer in Pakistan, now Ahmad rises before dawn and lugs his pushcart through the indifferent streets of the city, while selling pirated DVDs on the side. By the end of the film, everything he’s tried so hard to attain (and, indeed, maintain) has somehow, casually, slipped through his grasp. Throughout his trials, however, Razvi endures with a kind of dogged resolve that is both admirable and heartbreaking.
The strength of Man Push Cart lies in its attention to detail, especially the details of Manhattan’s cityscape. Bahrani lingers over the mostly nighttime shots of light—neon signs, incandescent bulbs, pulsating strobes, and occasional moonlight—as it plays against skyscrapers that dwarf Ahmad and his cart. Rain falls frequently, lending a sheen to the gritty surfaces of the city, illuminating the dirty and tired pre-dawn streets. The film’s languorous pace allows Bahrani to focus on the minutiae of city life, from the glittering metal of Ahmad’s cart to the jagged potholes filling with rain. Set against the quiet human tragedy, the beautiful cityscapes of Manhattan seem almost an affront, an assertion of the landscape’s indifference to human endeavor.
In Man Push Cart, the strictures of the life in the city prevent human relationships from truly developing. Characters fail each other over and over again, after initially offering the possibility of a redemptive connection. Ahmad meets the slick, successful Mohammad (a sometimes awkward Charles Daniel Sandoval), a potential friend and benefactor who remembers him from his former life in Pakistan; but Muhammad’s good intentions result only in further disappointment and humiliation for Ahmad. At the same time, Ahmad is courting Noemi (in a sweet, but shallow performance by Leticia Dolera), a kind Spanish girl working at a newsstand and missing her native Barcelona. Despite their desires, things don’t work out; that’s just how it is in Bahrani’s New York, a city of missed connections, small failures, backbreaking work, and quiet desperation.
While unremittingly bleak in its outlook, Bahrani’s Man Push Cart is a beautifully textured film. Ahmad Razvi turns in a solid performance in a difficult role and Bahrani does an impressive job of walking the fine line between pathos and pity. But the film’s greatest achievement is its languorous visual appreciation of the beauty and despair that coexist in New York, which remains an endless repository of American stories.